Santa Clara County
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SAN JOSE, Calif.—Construction workers in San Jose have unearthed what officials say is a 19th Century pauper's grave that may hold nearly 1,500 caskets.
The San Jose Mercury News reports that the site was discovered in February by excavation crews working at Valley Medical Center, a county hospital first established in 1875.
The crews found 15 pine coffins at the site, and immediately notified county officials who did research and discovered a map from 1932 that shows a graveyard for indigent and unclaimed bodies next to Valley Medical Center.
Santa Clara County officials believe the bodies were buried at the hospital cemetery between 1875 and 1935.
A petition was filed in Superior Court seeking permission to remove 100 of the coffins, which are in the way of the hospital's construction project, and cremate the remains.
The other estimated 1,345 coffins would remain buried beneath roads and parking lots in the vicinity.
Judge Paul Bernal, official historian for the city of San Jose, said locals simply called the cemetery behind the county hospital "County Cemetery" or "Potter's Field," where deceased who were indigent, unknown or unclaimed were buried.
Remembrance service held for hundreds buried at newly discovered San Jose potter's field
Saturday afternoon, under sunny summer skies, 77 years after the last person had been laid to rest in a long-forgotten hospital cemetery adjacent to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, a community gathered to finally pay its respects.
Roughly 100 people and six religious leaders representing major faiths prayed for the patients who died at the old Santa Clara County Hospital -- some penniless, some unknown -- and then were buried in a potter's field between 1875 and 1935. The site had been left off county maps for decades and paved over. But in February, construction crews doing grading work for seismic upgrades at the San Jose hospital, now Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, uncovered 15 pine coffins.
Using a 1932 map and measuring the space between the simple, unmarked coffins, county officials estimated there may be as many as 1,455 people buried at the site, their names lost to the mists of history.
"None present know these souls, yet our hearts grieve their loss," said Barbara Zahner, Valley Medical Center's chaplain. She referred to the people buried there as "those who have gone before us in the Valley of Heart's Delight."
The hourlong ceremony, held on the top floor of a two-story parking garage overlooking the site, presented a window into the rich ethnic and religious traditions of Santa Clara County.
Nick Carabajal, a member of the Ama Mutsan Tribal Band, sang Indian songs that he said would recognize and communicate with the spirits of the dead. Bishop James McGrath, of the Diocese of San Jose, blessed a sample of earth from the former graveyard. Thich Phap Chon, abbot at the Lieu Quan Buddhist Cultural Center in San Jose, chanted and sang with several dozen members of the center, extolling the virtues of compassion and rebirth.
"Whatever we have, we should help the needy people. May these departed souls rest in peace," said Pandit Ram Murti Sharra, of the Sunnyvale Hindu Temple and Community Center.
As construction on the hospital continues, the county plans to remove 100 of the coffins that are in the work's path, and leave the other estimated 1,345 buried. County officials have hired an archeologist from UC San Francisco to examine the remains in the 100 coffins and attempt to identify them.
But because there were no headstones, no complete records and no apparent markings on the boxes, that goal appears difficult.
"It's highly unlikely that we'll be able to ID any individual," said Joy Alexiou, a Valley Medical Center spokeswoman.
In May, a district court judge granted the county permission to remove the 100 coffins and, in accordance with state law on burying indigent and unknown people, cremate the remains. The ashes of those who cannot be identified will be disposed of at sea or in a designated garden, Alexiou said.
The graveyard appears on a 1932 map of San Jose, but does not appear on later maps. An employee parking lot was built on the site in 1966.
Such graveyards for the indigent and unknown were common at public hospitals in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their description as "potter's fields" comes from the Bible, which refers to fields that could not be used for growing crops, so they became sources of potter's clay or were used as burial sites.
Perhaps the most poignant moment Saturday came when Gloria Jabaut, a San Jose native, put a face and a personality on the cemetery's occupants.
Jabaut, 78, told the crowd the story of her grandmother, Anna Cardenas, a seamstress who was born in Spain in 1873. After sailing to Hawaii with her husband, Juan, around the turn of the 20th century for a new life in the pineapple fields, she made her way to Santa Clara in 1908.
But she died seven years later from pregnancy complications, at age 42, at Santa Clara County Hospital. Her death left her brokenhearted husband, who picked cherries and prunes for a living, with few options.
"He had five children to feed. And money was very scarce," Jabaut said. "He could not afford a funeral home or the local Catholic cemetery. So Anna's remains were relegated to the hospital cemetery. Only for a little while, only for a little while, my mother lamented. But that day never came."
In 1970, Jabaut and her mother went back to the hospital, searching for the cemetery, but were told by administrators there wasn't one on the grounds. Its discovery this year at long last was a vindication that has brought a measure of closure to her family, Jabaut said.
"Today, I really feel more peaceful," she said. "I think all of these souls have been recognized. I hope the county follows through with a memorial, as they've said. That would be the finishing touch."
Published in the San Jose Mercury News on July 7, 2012.